It’s 3.44 a.m. in the Strait of Dover and I’m lying awake on the top bunk of a tour bus parked on a ferry headed from France to the U.K. It’s been a day my 16-year-old Backstreet Boys-loving self could only have dreamed of — lunching with Howie Dorough, watching Nick Carter perform 20-year-old solo throwbacks, enjoying manicures with AJ McLean, and witnessing the group’s DNA world tour spectacle front row in Germany, before heading to London to do it all over again. And while the larger-than-life adventures, jet lag and post-show shots are taking their toll, I later realize maybe it’s simply part of getting an authentic taste of road life.
Giving fans that legit peek into touring, along with extraordinary encounters, was part of the ambitious Anywhere for You VIP offering dreamed up by Eddie Meehan, CEO of fan-engagement company Please & Thank You. Launched in Europe, the $5,000, two-show Backstreet Boys package chauffeured fans between cities and included everything from meet-and-greets, tickets and solo events to rider requests.
It’s a stark contrast to the masks, social distancing, and other precautionary measures you’d see at concerts in recent years. That has given way to intimate and interactive experiences like tequila toasts with Katy Perry, brunch with Tiesto, side-stage access to Matchbox Twenty, and backstage beers with Disturbed. Covid ignited deeper hunger and newfound appreciation for “IRL,” and events and VIP options are evolving to the point where some concertgoers — and even artists — are more pumped about preshow activities than the gig. “Coming out of a pandemic, people are putting a true value on experience,” says Harvey Cohen of Vibee, a new arm of Live Nation specializing in music-led destination experiences. “We’re seeing their desire to get out, experience, travel, and feel more, especially in a more curated situation.”
Throw in the financial boost such events provide amid the strains of inflation and Covid, and fan experiences are a game-changer for touring artists. And, there’s a growing number of players driving such experiences to evolve creatively, competitively, and lucratively. “For a while we were in the experience economy, but we’re evolving into a transformation economy, where people want more than an experience — they want to be transformed,” says Mike Savas, founder of Superfan Live, which runs concert packages for Metallica and Disturbed. “The experience needs to be epic and last well after the show. We want fans to leave wanting to come back because they feel like Metallica or Bon Jovi treat them like family.” Bon Jovi were Savas’ first taste of the artist-engagement world after being appointed VIP coordinator on their 2008 Lost Highway tour. The team took the idea around the world, but Savas says it took years of developing the concept and educating managers and artists before more acts jumped aboard.
It was also 2008 when Meehan, who was hired by the Backstreet Boys for their Unbreakable album release, witnessed radio contest winners’ spirited reactions at coming face-to-face with the artists. He promptly suggested selling meet-and-greets, which had typically been reserved for promo and contests up until then. “I spent years convincing other artists to do it after seeing the level of monetization with the Boys,” says Meehan. “I remember [Deftones frontman] Chino saying, ‘Dude, that’s corny.’ He eventually came around, but initially everyone thought it wouldn’t work.”
Backstage tours and Q&As have since become commonplace, and bespoke experiences have begun sprouting up more and more. When G-Eazy wanted to find money in his tour budget to bring his barber on the road in 2015, Meehan created an add-on where the barber would cut fans’ hair just like the rapper’s. Korn’s love of video games led to Meehan selling preshow gaming sessions with the group.
For O-Town, go-karting, laser tag, and karaoke-centered events stemmed from their own interests. “We’d be playing venues with mini golf so we’d play, then have to stop to attend meet-and-greets,” says band member Jacob Underwood. “We eventually went, ‘Why don’t we just do these experiences as our VIPs?’”
Between social media and digital platforms like Cameo, fans can more easily connect with musicians, lessening the value of a traditional meet-and-greet for some. “In today’s world of social media, the window into the performer’s life is more agape, so the appetite to touch and see the performer closely might be lessened,” says Matchbox Twenty guitarist and vocalist Kyle Cook.
Those diminishing barriers have made artists more likely to get up close and personal with fans in new and creative ways. That kind of connection is key to strengthening band loyalty and cultivating “family,” according to O-Town’s Underwood, who knows VIP “townies” by name, and is even up to speed on their latest dating adventures. For New Kids on the Block’s Jonathan Knight, such fan interactions supersede performing — something he never expected to say. “As kids, we’d walk in to meet radio winners and it was chaos. There was always a fight about who would fulfill that part of our job because we hated it,” says Knight. “Now, we happily do it. There’s an interaction onstage, but it’s not the same as walking around our cruise, stopping to say hi, and finding out about a fan’s life. For me, being onstage is now secondary to the human component of getting to know fans. They’re family.” And as Meehan notes, some artists are simply bored on the road; the events bring some welcome fun.
Meanwhile, the financial gains of such packages are reshaping the business as many acts continue to recover from the financial hit of the pandemic. Pollstar’s 2022 midyear report showed average tour gross, ticket prices, and sales-per-show were up from 2019 — but returning to the road has come with the speed bump of inflation. Matchbox Twenty are now playing concerts they sold tickets for in a whole different economy, back in 2020. “We didn’t think it would take three years for those shows to play, or that we’d go through a massive inflation hike,” says Meehan, who oversees the group’s packages. “Gas prices and labor have increased. We have to find ways to offset those expenses.”O-Town have also felt the strain. “Flights used to be $250 round-trip, and now they’re sometimes $850. We have inflated expenses, but we’re still offering tickets for $25 to $30,” says Underwood. “And every day you’re not working on the road, you’re still spending on hotels, rental cars, gas. You have to utilize your time and help the bottom line, and that’s usually with fan experiences. If I’m going to be at the venue anyway, I don’t need to sit backstage watching Showtime. We monetize our time because we’re there to work.”
Meehan notes that VIP add-ons can help with everything from improving production to transitioning from a van to tour bus. With some VIP add-ons, such as Incubus’ backstage experience, going for $10,000, Cohen points out they can also help control prices, with an act’s highest-spending fans swallowing costs that might otherwise get slapped onto regular tickets. “There’s a small percentage of fans willing to spend significant amounts on artist experiences, and by capturing that one percent for the premium packages, it might allow artists to keep 80 percent of ticket prices down,” he says. “It can be a revenue generator, [but] it can also ensure the average fan can still come in.”
As the market becomes more saturated, shaking up VIP options from city to city or tour to tour could prove key to retaining those top-spending followers. Much like the Anywhere for You bus gave me a new way to experience the Backstreet Boys, standing side-stage served up a new perspective on Matchbox Twenty during their Slow Dream Tour stop at The Chelsea in Las Vegas. Being surrounded by instruments, equipment, and crew, gave a palpable taste of what artists see, feel, and hear before and during showtime. When I did the side-stage experience again, at the group’s San Diego show, different positioning and lighting fuelled one of the most exhilarating concert moments of my life — showered in stage lights and feeling like I was smack bang in Rob Thomas’ shadow as he belted out “Friends,” the image of thousands of overjoyed fans wildly singing back to us forever ingrained in my mind.
The group’s Side Stage VIP package also includes a meet-and-greet, photo, and Q&A covering tidbits like whose dog was in the “Mad Season” music video. Fans also get an insight into band dynamics while witnessing soundcheck, where unexpected moments can include Cook covering Bob Marley or putting his spin on “Queen of New York City,” from the group’s new album, Where the Light Goes.
Two miles north of The Chelsea, you’ll find Resorts World Las Vegas, home to Katy Perry’s Play residency. I felt immersed in Perry from the moment I walked into the lobby and was greeted by a 50-foot digital globe lit up with the singer’s face. When I entered my room, I found “Waking Up in Vegas” playing.
With her Firework VIP Package, Perry gets the party started by leading a preshow tequila toast with fans, who then enjoy sashimi and omakase chosen by Perry and served in a themed Play lounge. A photo, meet-and-greet, and prime seat are also included.Perry doesn’t reserve her up-close-and-personal encounters for VIP attendees — during one recent show, she went from helping a couple get engaged to pulling kids onstage and dancing alongside them. She’s equally engaging during preshow events, according to Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, who attended one session. “They had to drag her out and get her to the stage, since she gave each person so much time,” he says.
Fellow Resorts World Las Vegas resident Luke Bryan is offering a similar package for his upcoming residency debut, hosting a preshow margarita toast before fans enjoy a mixology session and sample the singer’s favorite Southern-inspired dishes.
Fans of Disturbed, meanwhile, can down backstage beers with the metal icons thanks to Superfan Live’s preshow offerings. But it was a sober follower who had the most powerful experience at the event. As a teen, Sean Donaghey twice sold his Disturbed tickets to fund his drug addiction, but the band’s music carried him through depression and homelessness, then inspired him to get sober, save for a VIP package, and share his story. He recently did so with wife Jessica by his side in Toronto. “These guys saved my life and I was beyond happy to tell them my story and see their hearts so touched,” says the father of three. “I felt heard and wanted. Hearing them live was like seeing God for me. I went home on cloud nine, and my parenting was better, I was happier, and my everyday life got better, knowing that my story was finally out there. I felt free and alive.”
Even without artist interaction, fans are snapping up packages for acts like Beyoncé (who offers a front-row ticket, dedicated restroom, tour gift, and more for $5,463.65) and Taylor Swift, who charges $899, plus fees, for an “unforgettable” floor ticket, merch, and exclusive prints. (Prices for all artist packages can vary according to regions, taxes, and other variables, while inclusions and perks are subject to change.) While one Beyoncé fan declared, “My life’s complete — I can die happy now,” after experiencing the package, some Swifties have reported obstructed views from her VIP seats — although they’re still said to be the best way to “make eye contact for a brief second” with the star.
Recognizing the importance of photo ops, Madonna allows fans to snap a pic on her stage, among other perks, for $2.075.45, while 50 Cent attendees pose in front of a tour VIP backdrop for $771.40. Tate McRae meanwhile caters to her younger demographic by recognizing the sense of urgency they often feel with social media and taking a selfie on their cellphones, “so you can post straight to your socials!” Her package also includes candy and hospitality vouchers.
Ease and convenience are big motivators for fans, which is partly why Meehan launched the Backstreet Boys fan bus. Backstreet Army members were already globe-trotting to multiple shows, so the package eliminated the hassle of organizing accommodations, tickets, and transport. He says the biggest challenge with such ideas is “assumptions, fears, and hypotheticals” from management, lawyers, and production. But he plans to continue developing the bus concept for other artists.
Savas has meanwhile rolled out an I Disappear membership for Metallica fans, allowing them to attend unlimited shows on the M72 World Tour for one year on one continent. He also helped create the Lux Æterna Platform Experience, a viewing platform accommodating eight guests. “Every year Metallica seems to one-up themselves in creating these packages,” says Lyman. Sound Talent Group agent John Pantle agrees the experience is a great offering for the band’s loyal followers. “Hardcore fans would love it, and emulating Bobby Axelrod from Billions is never a bad move,” he says.
The platform is a sign of how fan experiences are increasingly being incorporated into stage design — as is also the case with VIP opera boxes that were built into the stage for the Queen and Adam Lambert Australian Rhapsody Tour.
It’s not just the music industry cashing in on VIP opportunities: Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey have offered add-ons like meet-and-greets; motivational speaker Jay Shetty leads a preshow meditation session; and the children’s entertainment world is also capitalizing on offstage interactions, with Kidz Bop offering a dance party and Q&A.
Increasingly, fan events are spilling outside of touring cycles altogether, with multiday destination experiences on the rise. The concept’s nothing new, particularly in the pop world, where New Kids on the Block launched one of the first celebrity cruises, in 2009. Now, entire music festivals take place at sea, such as ShipRocked, Soul Train Cruise, and Insomniac and Vibee’s upcoming EDSea, a floating version of Las Vegas’ EDC festival. “That’s going to blow everybody out of the water in terms of anything that’s ever been seen on a cruise ship,” enthuses Cohen.
Hanson were also early leaders in destination experiences, launching the annual, resort-based getaway Back to the Island, featuring cooking and mixology sessions, in 2013. A decade later, O-Town’s gearing up for Pop2000 in Paradise, a five-day Playa del Carmen extravaganza. The Backstreet Boys are heading to Cancun for their 30th-anniversary celebration, Backstreet’s Back at the Beach. And Jon Bon Jovi is hosting Halloween-weekend adventures in Miami.
Vibee has swiftly bolstered these kinds of offerings across all genres. The company aims to “amplify fan-to-artist connections” through curated experiences, festival integrations, and Las Vegas residencies, and they’ve announced a string of adventures, like a three-night Bahamas vacation with Lionel Richie, featuring a performance and fireside Q&A. “We want to give artists the opportunity to share their passions, whether it’s for timepieces or sneakers,” says Cohen. “They can talk about their lives while fans learn what drives them, experience a day in their life, and get a peek behind the curtain.”
Vibee’s also offering experiences at Tiesto’s Chasing Sunsets in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where guests will brunch with the EDM legend, and U2’s Achtung Baby Live engagement at Sphere Las Vegas, where fans can admire wardrobe pieces and Trabant cars from the band’s Zoo TV Tour over happy hour.
As the industry continues evolving, Savas predicts social impact and charity components will play a greater role, noting that Disturbed donates a portion of VIP revenue to charity. Sponsorships and brand integrations are also reshaping packages, which Meehan notes can make VIP experiences more affordable by absorbing some setup costs. Such partnerships are how he anticipates entering the likely next chapter in artist engagement — high-net-worth, private experiences. Tossing around ideas like fishing with Jimmy Buffett or golfing with Justin Timberlake, he’s looking to launch such events in 2024.
“Those are just ideas, but we’re rolling out niche, high-end events,” says Meehan. “That’s where we can bring in brand partners like American Express or Chase Sapphire, who are looking for exclusive experiences for their loyalty programs.”
And while teeing up with Timberlake may seem far-fetched, if ever there were a time that A-listers consider getting closer with their followers, it’s now, as the world continues to emerge from the isolation of the pandemic.
“I don’t think anybody realized how the world was going to change, and fans all had that moment of, ‘Will I get to go to a concert with friends again?’” says Underwood. “When we started coming back, it was more than a party. Everybody was going celebrating being back because no one knew if it would suddenly be ripped away again. It still feels like that because it’s not that far in the past, and everyone remembers just how quickly everything can disappear.”